Tag Archives: Spanish accents

In Spanish “hog heaven” with ANLE

Last night I attended an event of the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (ANLE), the United States branch of the Real Academia Española. The event was the induction ceremony for ANLE’s newest member, Eduardo Lolo, a professor at CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College.

For this linguist, the event was Spanish hog heaven. First, ANLE’s General Secretary, Jorge Covarrubias, introduced the inductee. Sr. Covarrubias is from Argentina, and his cadences were delightfully Italian. (In case you didn’t know, some 70% of Argentinians have Italian blood, and the Spanish there shows definite Italian influence.) Prof. Lolo then spoke. He is from Cuba and his Spanish sounded completely different from Sr. Covarrubias’s. Understanding him was at first rough going for this non-native speaker, but I got the hang of it after a few minutes. Finally, ANLE’s director, Gerardo Piña-Rosales, critiqued Prof. Lolo’s presentation. He is from Spain, so this was yet another accent, one that I am more familiar with.

All three men spoke beautiful, erudite Spanish, elegant yet crisp and communicative. It was a treat to hear these three different accents produced at such a high level of linguistic sophistication.

I shouldn’t neglect to say that the subject of Prof. Lolo’s talk, and Sr. Piña-Rosales’s critique, was children’s theater, a topic that I knew nothing about, and in fact had no idea had been the topic of academic research. Now I know a little more, and am impressed with how rich the subject is.

Lo pasé muy bien; gracias, ANLE.

All about Spanish accents

¡Los acentos importan! — the subject is Panamanian politician Ricardo Martinelli. The accent on él is from rule 3 below, and the accent on cambió is from rule 2.

People are always asking me about Spanish accent marks. I don’t think this is because accents are intrinsically difficult, but rather that most explanations fail to put together some related issues. It’s a not-seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees situation.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, what unites all uses of Spanish accent marks is that they serve to highlight unusual stress: stress on an unusual vowel, syllable, or word.

  1. A written accent can break the normal rules for which vowel to stress within in a vowel sequence. Spanish normally stresses the second of two vowels, as in fuE·go “fire” or diA·blo “devil” (this is actually a slight simplification). A written accent signals a deviation from this pattern, as in con·ti·nÚ·e “continue” or co·mÍ·a·mos “we were eating”. Notice that changing the stress pattern also creates an additional syllable. What power!
  2. A written accent can break the normal rules for which syllable to stress within a word. Spanish normally stresses the last syllable of a word that ends in a consonant, and the next-to-last syllable of a word that ends in a vowel. Think mu.jEr vs. hOm.bre. With a written accent mark you can break this pattern: lÁ.piz ends in a consonant, and hin.dÚ and te.lÉ.fe.no both end in a vowel. A final s or n doesn’t “count” because it’s usually a grammatical marker: there’s no stress difference between hA.blahA.blas, and hA.blan, or between cu.ca.rA.cha and cu.ca.rA.chas.
  3. A written accent marks the member of an otherwise identical word pair that usually carries more stress within a sentence, and can even stand alone. This is most obvious for question words. Compare the stress on accented versus unaccented quien and como in ¿Quién se llama Juan? and ¿Cómo nada un pez? versus Tu amigo, quien se llama Juan, nada como un pez. The accented varieties can stand alone: ¿Quién? ¿Cómo?

Once you know these fundamental rules, mysteries vanish. Why does más have an accent? To distinguish it from the obscure word mas, which means “but”; note that the accented version can stand on its own (¡Más!). Why do some words gain an accent in the plural, some lose an accent, and some keep an accent? These cases all have to do with final n or s:

  • Words that gain an accent change from regular to irregular in the plural. Singular jO·ven has regular stress (next-to-last syllable, word ends in n) but plural jÓ·ve·nes is irregular (third-to-last syllable).
  • Words that lose an accent change from irregular to regular in the plural. Singular ja·mÓn has irregular stress (final syllable, word ends in n) but plural ja·mO·nes is regular (next-to-last syllable, word ends in s).
  • Words that keep an accent have irregular stress in both the singular and the plural. For ca·fÉ and ca·fÉs, regular stress would be on the a; for fÁ·cil and fÁ·ci·lesregular stress would be on the i.

Even native speakers make accent mark mistakes, so please — don’t stress! 😉

Spanish vs. French accent marks

When my students complain about “all those accent marks” in Spanish, I tell them that matters could be far worse. They could be studying French.

Consider the French phrase fête d’élèves (“student party”). This simple phrase illustrates four substantial differences in how French and Spanish use accent marks:

  1. The French phrase has three different accent marks: acute (é), grave (è), and circumflex (ê). Spanish only has one: acute.
  2. The word élèves has two accented vowels (even more are possible, as in répété “repeated”). Spanish allows only one per word.
  3. The French accent marks affect the pronunciation of individual letters: the é sounds roughly like ai in English bait, the ê and è like e in English bet, and the unaccented e‘s are silent. This never happens in Spanish.
  4. The circumflex accent in fête serves as a mini-lesson in the history of the word, memorializing the loss of an s from Latin festus (compare Spanish fiesta). Every Spanish accent mark has a contemporary purpose. In fact, the Spanish language Academy periodically purges accent marks that it considers passé. For example, it recently eliminated the accent on the word o  (meaning “or”) when it appears between two numbers, as in 8 ó 9 (now 8 o 9). Previously, it was thought that the accent would prevent this phrase from being misread as 809, but since most written Spanish these days is typeset, not hand-written, misreadings are no longer an active concern.

In fact, the only thing that French and Spanish accent marks have in common is that they are only found on vowels. Not that our more creative students don’t try putting them on consonants from time to time…

Any decent textbook or review book [Update: or this later postwill explain why Spanish does use accents: basically, to highlight stress that is unusual because it:

  1. breaks the normal rules for which vowel to stress within in a vowel sequence (e.g. día vs. diablo);
  2. breaks the normal rules for which vowel to stress within a word (e.g. teléfono vs. necesito).
  3. marks the member of an otherwise identical word pair that is usually more important to the meaning of a sentence, like vs. si in , vendré si puedoYes, I’ll come if I can.” If one of the two words can stand alone in a sentence, it’ll be this one.

For the punctuation fanatic, the ultimate read is the Academy’s  current spelling guide, or Ortografía, which devotes fully 65 pages (!!!) to the topic.